Blithe Spirit: A High-Spirited Comedy by the Masterful Noël Coward
By Victoria Marchesani
A man dubbed “The Master” by his friends because of his seemingly bottomless pool of talents, Noël Coward lived a life of such legendary renown that it seems more like fiction than fact. Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and elected into the elite Royal Society of Literature, Coward was a celebrated songwriter, playwright, actor, director, singer, and composer who rose to great prominence in Britain and the U.S. in the years between the two world wars.
Born in London on December 16, 1899, Coward was raised in a working-class family, not too far from poverty. Nonetheless, from a young age, Coward’s mother encouraged him to take tap dance classes and audition for local productions. At ten years old, he tapped his way into his first role. In his memoir, Coward, Sheridan Morley states: “By fifteen, he had acted with silent film sensations, sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish in Hearts of the World. At twenty, he was a produced playwright, and at age 30, he had written the play The Vortex, the epic 400-cast Cavalcade, the everlasting Private Lives and the lyrical operetta Bitter Sweet.”
Compelled both by his yearning to escape poverty and by his natural talents, Coward wrote more than 60 plays and 300 songs, as well as short stories and screenplays. When he wrote plays, he often wrote parts for himself, and Blithe Spirit was no exception: he played the role of Charles Condomine, a husband torn between two wives, one living and one, a ghost.
Blithe Spirit “fell into my mind and onto the manuscript” Coward once said. He wrote it in a week. He referred to it as “An Improbable Farce in Three Acts” and took the name from the first line of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, To a Skylark. The play opened at London’s Piccadilly Theatre on July 2, 1941—just six weeks after it was written. On November 5, 1941, it premiered on Broadway.
Charles Condomine is a novelist who prepares a séance as a joke in order to gain information for his new novel. The medium, Madame Arcati, turns out to be quite powerful, summoning Charles’s first wife, Elvira, who has been dead for several years. But only Charles can see Elvira, who begins to enchant him as she always had. Tensions rise when Elvira makes increasingly desperate attempts to be seen, including tossing furniture and creating chaos.
Coward chose to write a comedy about death in order to distract his audience from the harsh reality of living in a city that was under constant threat of attack by the Germans. The public had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to Blithe Spirit with a record-setting run of 1,997 performances in London. “Coward wanted something silly and funny that everyone could laugh at because life was grim during the war,” says Anne Lewis, who is directing the play. “People were sending their children away and losing their relatives. Coward wanted to write a fun play, and he did.”
In 1945, Blithe Spirit was adapted into a movie, and in 1956 a TV version was produced, with Coward playing Charles. In 1964, a musical version came to Broadway under the name High Spirits and received eight Tony nominations, including one for Coward’s direction. It ran for just over a year. Revived once more in 1987, Blithe Spirit ran for three months. Last produced by the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival in 1999, Blithe Spirit is entertainment that elevates. As director Anne Lewis says, “Audiences can expect to have a good time.”
Towards the end of his life, Coward continued to perform in and direct his own shows. In 1966, he made his last London stage appearance in his own Suite in Three Keys. Coward retired to Jamaica, where he died on March 26, 1973, at the age of 74.
On Coward’s 70th birthday, Lord Louis Mountbatten said: “There are probably greater painters than Noël, greater novelists than Noël, greater librettists, greater composers of music, greater singers, greater dancers, greater comedians, greater tragedians, greater stage producers, greater film directors, greater cabaret stars, greater TV stars. If there are, they are 14 different people. Only one man combined all 14 labels—‘The Master.’”
When asked by an interviewer what he would like to be remembered for, he responded: “By my charm.”